A day or two ago I became very annoyed at some English graffiti. An adolescent hand had written on a wall, "Go home tourism "pilgrims" ". A crude picture pointed out that the offender had no backback and thought s/he was pretty awesome for being able to walk 100 km. Perhaps it was because I was carrying no backpack at the time, and struggling to walk 15 km but it hit a raw spot. Amidst my judgmental response to this piece of judgementalism, I have been thinking quite intensely since about what it is that makes a "real" pilgrim. I see Spanish abuelas well into their 70s struggling up hills in unlikely looking gear. They have no doubt walked very few kilometres but I know they are giving all they have as they plod on their way to Santiago to lay their heartfelt concerns before the relics of the great apostle. I see upper middle class English staying in fancy hotels and being ferried to their starting point on the track every day by taxi and returning to 4 courses and a sauna and a night on a kingsize innerspring. I see American and Italian and German and Spanish 20 somethings with the best possible gear walking resolutely through mile after mile of Spanish countryside as they try and figure out which way is up. I see people my own age battling various soft tissue injuries and plodding slowly from village to village. Each in their own way, these are all real pilgrims. I believe each has a reason to be here and I think each has been called here. But for it to work, truly, as pilgrimage, the Camino must cost something. It must hurt. It must bring us to the edge of our need for comfort, for security and for certainty; and the more it costs the better.
Personally, I am not convinced that payers said in front of the bones of some dead bloke are any more effective than any other sort of prayers, even in the highly unlikely event that the skeletal remains belong to one of the apostles. I don´t think that the sheer hard work of walking hundreds of kilometres across a foreign land earns any sort of favour with the almighty. But I know that making pilgrimage is a spiritual practice.
All spiritual practices have this in common: they confront us with the limits of the false self, so that we can recognise those limits and grow past them, and this is precisely what the Camino does. It is a tool, in other words, whereby we make real Jesus invitation to leave ourselves behind in order that we might find ourselves. The Camino Santiago de Compostela is not a pleasant and refreshing walk through beautiful Spanish countryside. It is not an interesting historical and cultural walking tour. Or at least, it is not just those things. The Camino challenges and searches and judges. The Camino exposes us, we who answer its call to pilgrimage. The myriad defence mechanisms we call our personality are opened up and shown for what they are and the result is not diminution but expansion; a contact with the true self and with the great one whose ground, Says Meister Eckhart, is the same ground as that of the true self.
People have walked this track for a long time. For a thousand years Christians have taken various routes to Santiago to pray before a skeleton of archetypal lineage. For 1500 years before that and maybe for longer pagans have done the same thing over the same space for outwardly different but internally similar reasons. And I do the same. Tomorrow I finish. I will walk into Santiago cathedral and I don´t know what on earth will happen. In some ways it is is irrelevant because it has been the journey, not the destination which has challenged me to the very limits of my endurance and brought me to new depths of understanding of who and what I am. I will finish with inflamed tendons and a deflated bank account, but I can´t dismiss the possibility that perhaps when I am even older, even more injury prone, I will gladly make my way to St. Jean Pied de Port and do it all over again.